Message for Parashat Hukkat
22 June 2018
"Panic in the Desert; the Death of Miriam"

A legend tells of a marvelous well that sprang up wherever the Jews camped. The well was a tribute to Miriam’s piety.

Miriam waited by the waters of the Nile to see the fate of her baby brother, Moses, whom she saved from the waters.

Miriam lead the celebration after the crossing of the sea.

Miriam is blessed by water and she brings water everywhere she goes.

It is not surprising then that the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat Hukkat, reports that right after Miriam’s death, the people complain about a lack of water.

Experts on survival techniques point out that humans have found a way to live in arid lands and many people are well adapted to survive in deserts. They recommend learning to be part of the desert's ecosystem and not to fight the desert, but to become part the wilderness. I just found out that I got a spot in a tiyyul I wanted next months in Israel; we will visit the Dead Sea and learn about the desert ecosystem.

I will be prepared and follow some common sense rules: Wear a proper hat, with a wide brim and closed crown, and long sleeves. Wear sunglasses that filter out ultraviolet light Carry sufficient water!

Survival guides will tell you that you cannot be prepared for every possible change in conditions, but we must be prepared MENTALLY for what we may encounter in the wilderness. They teach that the biggest killer in any emergency situation is panic. Panic blinds a person to reason and can cause them to compound the emergency with fatal results. Controlling panic is a matter of focusing the mind and operating in an organized manner. One Australian survival expert teaches this ABC of principles to avoid panic.

A: Accept the situation.

B: Brew up a cup of tea, in other words, complete a familiar, calming chore.

C: Consider your options, and decide on a plan.

I looked up and down in the Torah, and I couldn't find one place where Moses tells the people to prepare for the journey ahead by taken the common sense survival precautions …. Maybe if Moses had, we would not be talking about the people’s complaint today. The Torah does report several instances when the people panicked and lost hope. Text: “The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai! Why have you brought the Adonai’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Num. 20:2-5).

The people panicked, no doubt, but what is more puzzling is that Moses did too. In a famous episode, God tells Moses to “speak to the rock” so that the rock will give water. What does Moses do? He strikes the rock, twice. As a result, Moses is punished by not entering the Promised Land. Whether this was too big of a punishment or not is up for discussion, but it is clear that Moses panicked and instead of using his brain to respond to the situation, he took matters in his own hand, literally, and stroke the rock.

Can we blame him a for reacting the way he did? The sense of desperation at the lack of water must have been overwhelming. Even if they had taken the survival class offered in Egypt, and paid attention, still, this might have been too much for them to bear. Many of our commentators point out that the panic was not due to a lack of preparation or survival plan. When you have God, why would you need a plan? Their panic was motivated by a lack of moral fiber; they were in a physical wilderness, for sure, but they were fundamentally in a state of moral wilderness. Which brings me to today.

How many times have we felt that way in recent months? How many times have we seen the moral wilderness that our country seems to fallen into? Not just in political leadership; our elected officials were elected by people, many of whom still agree with the picture of moral wilderness we continue to see. The desert of humanitarianism that we see at our Southern border is supported by many of our fellow Americans. They are too quick to panic that we may be “overrun” by migrants. They panic, for sure, but we panic at their panic too.

Many of us panic that the moral values we embrace are retreating, and we are left with a moral desert, a wilderness lacking compassion and common sense. So, how is one to survive this moral desert without panicking? How can we survive the moral deserts that we are sure to encounter at again not only in the national arena, but also at work, in our dealings with people, in our own family? How many times have we felt as if we were living in a desert, a moral desert, a relational desert? Perhaps, the ABC of survival can help us be our guide and inspiration.

A: Accept the situation. Do not blame yourself or others. Do not waste time contemplating "What if I had ..." I know it is hard; I do it too. Stopping the playing of the blaming game instead of coming to terms with the situation we are in is hard, but accepting what we have will benefit us in the end. It gives us the freedom to look at the world as it is, and we can begin to plan how we want to change it in the future.

B: Brew up a cup of tea. In other words, do a calming chore; something you know you can do and you are good at. Bake a pie? Tend the garden? Grill a hamburger? Or maybe help a cause it is dear to you. Do it until it feels good. Do whatever calming tasks you like, but the idea is that by doing a calming task, you are not panicking!

C: Consider your options. Take stock of items at hand; in the actual desert it would be things such as water reserves, survival kits, etc.; in a moral desert, it is looking at the moral reserves we already have: our relationships, our set of values and believes, our conviction that we must treat each other with compassion and fairness.

D: Decide on a plan. Taking into account our options and decide on a plan that will ensure our moral health. If you decide that education is what is needed at this point, take steps to teach others about why we should care for migrants, for the homeless, for the working poor; it is your decision, but own your plan and live up to it. If your plan is helping your work space be a more compassionate and safe place, plan for it and execute it. We might be surrounded, it seems, but moral deserts, but unless we decide NOT to panic and do something about it, the deserts will take over. Decide on plan and stick to it.

As we read about the panic our ancestors endured in their desert, may we heed the teachings from their experience and resolve to survive the moral deserts we face today and those which we may yet to face, using acceptance, calm, determination and a plan to get us to a better place, to our own Promised Land.

Shabbat shalom.